Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United States last week. The Pope’s visit was his first to the U.S., and while he obviously tried to energize Catholics, the largest denomination in the U.S., his message was surprisingly political. For the Chinese leader, on his first state visit as president, his trip included meetings with business leaders in Seattle, a reception in Washington with a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn, and multilateral events in New York. While the Pope used the opportunity to emphasize a moral dimension in political affairs, Xi Jinping dealt with such earthly matters as cyber-espionage, climate change, the South China Sea, and China’s relationship with the U.S. as a great power.
The separation of church and state is one of the bedrocks of modern liberalism. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in Immoral Society is a classic example of the traditional separation. The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs has a journal - “Ethics & International Affairs”- ; the for in the Council’s name implies that the Council’s purpose is to promote ethics in unethical international affairs, the “&” in the journal’s title similarly highlights the distinction between ethics and politics. The separation of church and state has come to be understood as the unethical nature of politics.
The Pope no longer has an army; the Vatican is defended by the small Swiss Guard. The pontiff is a spiritual leader, and no longer a political figure. The answer to Stalin’s question “How many divisions does the Pope have?” is obvious.
And yet, Pope Francis’s speeches before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations were very political, secular speeches. His use of the two important pulpits reflected a direct relation between ethics and politics. He has been called “a chairman of causes beyond the scope of church doctrine.” In Washington, Pope Francis, the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, challenged the elected representatives on a series of practical issues. From favoring immigration to rejecting unregulated capitalism, from condemning capital punishment to endorsing environmental legislation, from calling to help the poor and destitute to criticizing the arms trade, the pontiff bridged the gap between ethics and politics. As he said: “Politics is…an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one, the greatest common good.”
Before the United Nations General Assembly, Francis continued his political challenges, endorsing UN efforts to reduce global poverty and fight climate change. Although the Holy See has only non-member observer status at the UN, the pope’s moral authority was evident as he praised the members for the recent Iran nuclear deal but also criticized the Security Council members for failing to reach agreements on peace in the Middle East as well as Ukraine and Sudan. Continuing his general criticisms of inequality in capitalism, he even went into the specifics of the “equity” in the membership of the Security Council.
What will be the effects of his visit and speeches? He spoke before a special summit to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. Will he help a final agreement? Will his position on immigration change the positions of countries building barbed wire barriers? Probably not. The separation of ethics and politics remains as important a bedrock of realpolitik as the separation of church and state for liberalism. To read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as a political call to action has been long forgotten. And yet, the pope was very clear that immoral society must change, that ethics is part of international affairs, and that justice is not an intellectual concept, but is something to be lived or at least something to be strived for.
The visit of the Chinese political leader and Communist Party chief had no ethical overtones. It was realpolitik at its best as the two leaders of the most powerful countries tried to work through a series of issues while disagreeing on major problems such as sovereignty in the South China Sea, human rights, freedom of the press, democracy, transparency, etc. Nonetheless, agreement was reached on carbon emissions, an “understanding” on cybersecurity and progress on reducing nuclear risks with Iran.
As with the visit of the pope, the question is, What will be the effects of the visit? While the pope’s visit was highly anticipated and publicized, the Chinese leader’s visit was more discreet, and certainly less spectacular. But in terms of results, Xi Jinping’s visit may turn out to be more important. The Obama administration is more than aware of the growth of China. Their tilt toward Asia includes strengthening ties to allies in the region at the same time developing a relation with China that is not mere containment. A modus vivendi is being worked out between two countries who are competing and cooperating at the same time, who are rivals who need each other’s partnership. Common understandings were reached on a number of issues.
The pope’s visit was surprisingly political, with however, little direct action envisioned to implement his ethical program. Xi Jinping’s visit was directly political, with a degree of consensus and cooperation that should be understood as an ethical position of compromise and dialogue in a world that often speaks of with us or against us.
The relation between the United States and China calls for subtle diplomacy, itself an ethical position. Separating ethics from politics like separating friends from enemies is too simple. Mature leaders understand these complexities. So while the pope’s visit seemed to highlight his moral authority on political issues, the Chinese leader’s political visit turned out to have significant ethical implications.